‘Empire’s Rafael de la Fuente on How Playing a Gay Character Opened the Floodgates of Support

With his breakout role on the hit musical drama Empire, which is currently at the midway point of its second season on Fox, Venezuelan actor and singer Rafael de la Fuente is excited about where his career has taken him after only a couple years in Hollywood. On Empire, de la Fuente, who got his start on the Spanish-language fantasy show Grachi and then on the U.S. remake Every Witch Way, stars as Michael Sanchez, the boyfriend of Cookie and Lucious’ son Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who is currently the interim CEO of his family’s record label. During an interview, de la Fuente, 28, talked about the positive feedback he’s received from viewers on Empire featuring a gay character, and why he feels it’s so important to have Latino creators working on TV shows with Latino roles.

On playing a gay character

People have been really excited and supportive. There has been an overwhelming wave of love for [my character]. You do get a few haters out there on Twitter, but gay kids send me private messages all the time saying how much they appreciate what we are doing and how they have gathered the courage to come out to their parents or even start a conversation with them because of the show. Family members of gay people have reached out and said, “Thank you for such an honest portrayal of a gay couple.” It’s great to play roles that not only entertain people, but that are also creating change and that have a purpose. Entertaining the audience is awesome, but when you add the fact that we can impact society in a positive way, it makes it so much more rewarding.

On having a Latino writer like Carlito Rodriguez on staff this season

Thank God we have [Carlito] here. It is an issue in Hollywood. We certainly keep talking about needing more Latino characters, but what we really need too are Latino writers and creators. It doesn’t really help to have more Latino characters when they are stereotypes and not really a true representation of the culture. I always have that conversation with other Latino actors in LA. Here, when you go to an audition and you’re supposed to play a Latino, they are expecting you to play a Mexican cholo. But that is not our only face. That’s not our only identity as Latinos. All these things are things that will change if we have more Latino creators and writers and Latinos behind the camera to help with that. I think before the roles we need the creators.

Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX.
Read more

On actress Taraji P. Henson’s fondness for ad-libbing dialogue on the show

“It’s great to play roles that not only entertain people, but that are also creating change and that have a purpose.”

The famous quote “Shut up, Dora [the Explorer]!” was improvised. She does it all the time, which is what is brilliant about her. She has created so much of her character on the spot. That is part of the training an actor has when you’re on set with her. You just have to go along with it and be present and in the moment. There are different kinds of shows. There are shows where you have to stick to the dialogue that has been written and then there are shows where they give you a little more freedom. Empire is one of those shows where they let you add to it. For me, sometimes it will be easier to say a sentence in a different way. Or I’ll ask if I can say a certain line in Spanish. They like actors to give their input.

On whether or not he thought he’d be back for Season 2

When I shot the last episode of Season One, I knew that I was going to come back, but nothing is for sure. I didn’t have a contract or anything, but [creator] Lee Daniels called me and told me he wanted me back. When they did call me, I was very excited.

Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX.
Read more

On Empire’s telenovela-style twists

Empire is a little bit of a telenovela. It’s a bit of a fusion between The Godfather and King Lear and hip-hop and a telenovela. Telenovelas have been around forever. They are massively popular.

On what we can expect from his character as the season continues

I don’t even know. I don’t get the script until two days before I have to shoot. Usually I’m excited, but sometimes I’m a little nervous. They’re so secretive. It can be a little nerve-wracking. We’re just going to have to stay tuned.